It can be incredibly important to know your maximum heart rate in much the same way it is important to know your maximum weight (1 rep max) for common lifts. Basing training around your heart rate- both maximum and percentages thereof- will enable you to run at the right intensity in order to reach your training goals. It will help you to keep intensity appropriate and will allow you to more easily track your cardiovascular fitness.

Training intensity is typically divided into five heart rate zones, each with their own specific use and range of requirements. They go from lower percentages at a very light level, up to maximum intensity at 90%+


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For example, heart rate zone four runs at 81-90% of your maximum capacity. Training here will bring its own specific benefits in increasing your maximum performance ability.


These are all percentages of your maximum heart rate. To work them out, therefore, you obviously need to know- or at least be able to estimate- your maximum heart rate.




The simplest ways


There are a couple of different ways in which you can work out or estimate your maximum heart rate. The crudest, yet easiest, is simply to use this common formula:


220- your age


For example, a twenty-year-old would have a maximum heart rate of 200bpm (beats per minutes). On the other hand, a fifty-year-old would have a maximum heart rate of 170bpm. This is fairly inaccurate, failing to take into account individual differences in factors like fitness levels, lifestyle and genetics. However, it does have the dual virtue of being simple and accessible, whilst also faithfully representing the fact that maximum heart rate does indeed decline as we age.

For a more accurate picture, it may be worth using a maximum heart rate calculator, which will bring in more variables than simply age.


The clinical way


Alternatively, you could have your heart rate clinically measured. Of course, this is both the most accurate and most inaccessible way of measuring max heart rates: it is only usually available to top athletes and those with access to world-class fitness facilities. These tests are usually conducted by cardiologists and/or exercise physiologists, with the aid of cardio tests like bicycle stress tests performed in conjunction with various measurements like echocardiograms (ECGs).


The field test


If you’re feeling adventurous, you could conduct a field test on yourself, seeking your maximum heart rate by pushing yourself upwards to it.


This is simple, if not easy. You only need a simple heart rate monitor (such as can be bought cheaply, either by themselves or as part of a Fitbit style biometric scanner) and a pair of running shoes.


Warm-up for a good 10-20 minutes so that you are able to push yourself to your maximum. This could be a light jog or cycle on a flat surface, accompanied by some dynamic stretching. Then perform exercise to 10RPE (rate of perceived exertion), going as hard as you can until you literally cannot go any more. The top number you reach for your heart rate is your max heart rate.


Hill sprints, either on foot or on a bike, are perfect for this kind of work. Choose a hill that would take a few minutes to climb by foot if running, or by bike if cycling. Beginning at the bottom, sprint to the top. Then walk or freewheel to the bottom, taking a minute to rest.


Don’t push yourself to your max on your first try. Aim for 6-10 sprints, getting steadily harder until you complete a maximum effort. Record your heart rate throughout to see how high it spikes.


Any one of these methods will give you at least an approximation of your maximum heart rate, which will generally be good enough to work from for the purpose of programming. If you want to see progression in your cardiovascular ability, you will want to test your max heart rate every few months, as above, either as a field test or, if available, in a laboratory.


For most people, however, using a simple maximum heart rate calculator will be sufficient.

Max Heart Rate Calculator

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Your Max Heart Rate: ?

95% Max HR 70% Max HR
90% Max HR 65% Max HR
85% Max HR 60% Max HR
80% Max HR 55% Max HR
75% Max HR 50% Max HR